How absence makes the heart grow fonder

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IF YOU were asked to solve the problem of long-distance love, keeping the spark of a relationship alive over hundreds of miles, you probably wouldn't look for the answer in Marchmont or Forres.

Nothing against the leafy Edinburgh suburb or the Highland town, but neither springs to mind as the place where an innovative art-technology hybrid designed to enhance human intimacy might be developed or installed. But that's how it is.

Mutsugoto, a Japanese term that loosely translates as "pillow talk", is the brainchild of Forres-based company Distance Lab. It's an interactive computerised projection system that uses light to simulate touch.

That might sound confusing, but the idea is relatively simple: a small plastic disc, worn like a ring, is connected to a projection system. As you move your hand while wearing the disc a trace of light appears. The full system involves two partners in two different rooms (hence the distance) who can both see and interact with the light being created by the other.

They can't see or hear each other, but they can see the traces of light and, as the traces created by the couple cross, they twinkle and change colour. Couples separated by hundreds of miles, can draw on each other's bodies with light while they're lying in bed.

Think of Etch-a-Sketch as a two-player game with light instead of the little black line and you're getting the idea.

In trials of the system taking place this month, two couples with one half in Edinburgh (the Marchmont connection) and the other in London, are drawing on each other instead of speaking on the phone or sending texts or e-mails. They're using Mutsugoto to have an altogether more intimate experience. Ingenious, no? And perhaps a little bit odd.

Lisa Reynolds, 23, and her boyfriend, Adam Braithwaite, 23, one of the first couples to try Mutsugoto (Reynolds is based in Edinburgh, Braithwaite in London) know what it's like trying to make a long-distance relationship work. And they're the first to concede, it's tough.

"We met in America where we were both doing work placements for a year," says Braithwaite. "We only lived a couple of blocks away from each other. Then when we moved back to England to finish our undergraduate degrees I was in Leeds and Lisa was in Manchester, just about an hour in the train. But at the time that felt like a long way and now we're in different countries."

"We don't do too badly compared with other long- distance couples, because we make sure we can see each other every other weekend," says Reynolds, "but it isn't ideal."

The couple have been together nearly three years, and as well as travelling to see each other, keep in touch on the phone, by e-mail and using their webcams. But it's not the same as actually being there, so they were keen to try something new. And a little nervous.

"I was a bit scared when I first went there," says Reynolds. "I thought it'd be a bit strange. I had the biggest sense of relief when I arrived because I didn't really know what to expect, but I was afraid there was going to be a group of people watching me do it.

"I'm not a very openly loving person, so I was so relieved that it was just me."

In fact, the Mutsugoto system is set up in a large ground-floor room decorated in white apart from red organza curtains hung around the room's only piece of furniture, a double bed.

It's designed by Tomoko Hayashi, one member of the Distance Lab team behind Mutsugoto. Hayashi is a former fine art student and textile designer, so the look and feel of the room is as important as the technology. The windows are blocked up to keep out the light and there's only a small lamp in the corner of the room. The only sign of technology is a projector on the ceiling above the bed and some cables and wires that run from it.

It feels almost like a gallery space rather than a bedroom and I'm not sure how easy it would be to get relaxed. But according to both Reynolds and Braithwaite, after a bit of adjustment it was easy.

"It's an odd concept at first and it takes a while to get used to it," says Braithwaite. "You can't see the person so it's hard to tell where they are; all you can see is the light and the changes when your partner's light interacts with yours. It's almost like your partner is moving their hands around you rather than just the light moving in a disconnected way."

But with two hours to fill and each other's bodies as a canvas, what did they do?

And before we go any further, let's deal with the inevitable. What you're thinking is, just how intimate does it get? Is it about sex? Every time I've talked about Mutsugoto to anyone, apart from the people who made it and used it, that's what it's come down to. It goes a bit like this – so you're in a bed? yes. Alone? yes. And you partner draws (I'll let you add your own Carry On inflection to this word) on you? Yes! But actually no. Mutsugoto is about closeness, intimacy, love. Oh what filthy minds people have.

Reynolds says she hasn't really told many people about her Mutsugoto experience because whenever she tried to, she didn't get far. "I didn't really know how to describe it. I'd just be setting the scene and people would be like 'oh yeah…' So I thought OK, I just won't tell anyone."

But since we're on the topic, would it lend itself to that? "No, I don't think so," she says. "It'd be a bit weird."

So that's that dealt with. Let's move on. So what did they do?

They drew shapes, they wrote questions, they even played noughts and crosses. "After not very long really it was surprisingly easy to understand what each of us was doing," says Reynolds. "By the end of it I was really impressed. I never really think that we're on the same wavelength but we managed to have a conversation."

Really, it improved communication?

"Yeah definitely. There were a few times when he started to write a question and I knew what he was asking before he was finished. It was cool to feel that you know what the other person is thinking."

Braithwaite felt the same. "In the end it was quite emotional, really. We felt quite close to each other and a bit sad because we missed each other more than usual. It was interesting that it did seem to allow a different kind of contact that you can't really get with different forms of communication. You could see your partner's actions which added a different dimension really."

For Hayashi, the simplicity of the system is its strength.

"People come up with their own way of communicating," she says. "Sometimes people draw flowers or hearts, but other times it's very abstract drawing or movement. There's no sound, you can't see each other so you just have time to concentrate and find a way of communicating with each other. When there's a lot of information – you can see their face and hear their voice – but you can't touch them it can be frustrating. But with this it's a totally new way of experiencing that person so you discover different ways of feeling them."

It might be designed for couples who are separated by long distances to keep in touch, to retain that sense of intimacy and closeness, but I can't help but think that there might be advantages for couples who are closer together.

"If you were going to use Mutsugoto regularly you'd have to block out time in the week to do it," says Reynolds. "It's an event with your partner, so you have to be there and you can't do anything else. It's quite nice really."

Just think about the last time that you did something with your loved one that involved you only thinking about them, focusing on only them, nothing else – no kids, no calls, no e-mails, no cooking, no sorting the washing, no telly. Just them.

It might not be quite the distance that Distance Lab have in mind, but from the top of the stairs to the bottom of the stairs might be the biggest distance of all in some relationships.

Mutsugoto also challenges the backlash against new technology, the idea that gadgets and gizmos and social networking hinder our ability to communicate rather than helping it. That's a vital part of Distance Lab's role, according to the company's research director, Stefan Agamanolis. For him the best analogy is with the slow food movement.

"We're trying to create slow communications," he says. "It's a focus on quality as opposed to efficiency, controlling the entire experience not just the message itself, and a focus on humanity. It's not about a robotic experience that could take place all over the world. It's local, it's tailored to the character of the relationship. It's a different design tradition that we're trying to investigate. Mutsugoto is one manifestation of that."

The idea being that, although you might use your phone and laptop for work as well as play, Mutsugoto is special – it's just for you and your loved one. Reynolds and Braithwaite are convinced.

"I can see how you would incorporate Mutsugoto into how you communicate if you're a couple and you live apart," Braithwaite says. "It wouldn't take long to feel it was quite normal: 'Let's get Mutsugoto out and have a bit of a draw'."

OTHER WAYS OF KEEPING IN TOUCH

&#149 Mix it up. Speaking on the phone might once have seemed newfangled, but look around, we all do it all the time. Don't fall into the habit of phoning your loved one at the same time every day/week and chatting just like you do to your mates. It might be practical to have a slot ("Well, how did I know you were in the middle of watching The Wire?") but it soon gets boring. Call at unexpected times and say something nice. "I love you" usually does the trick. Don't moan about your day, the trams, the fact that your boss never listens to you. Just be focused on your partner. That's why you called, after all.

&#149 The old ones are the best. They really are. I am yet to see anyone (man or woman) who, even if they felt mortified as they had to walk through their open-plan office with an enormous bouquet, isn't secretly chuffed that their other half would take the time and trouble to send them their favourite flowers. (You do know what flowers they like, right?)

&#149 Be formal. You don't have to get the quill pen and wax seal out (although come to think of it, why not?) but a formal invitation with RSVP, of course, is pretty irresistible. You don't even have to be planning to go out. Just invite them to the sofa in the living room the next time you're going to be together for some smooching.

&#149 Beware. When you get to see each other again you might feel a little bit disappointed. Anti-climax is the technical term. Don't fret, the chances are it's only because you've built up your expectations. Communicating more when you're apart will help this. In fact, you might start to realise that the anticipation is the best bit of all.

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